Miss Rachel, an Inspirational Story from Belize on International Women's Day

Caroline Joyner on 08 March 2022
During my time as a product manager for an educational travel company, my role was to set up volunteer projects around the world. Over the years I met some incredible women doing incredible things, often with little support, in all sorts of places. Miss Rachel always stuck in my mind, and I wrote this about her for International Women's Day in 2019.

Straddling Central American jungles and the clear Caribbean sea, tiny Belize is a melting pot of Central American and Afro Caribbean cultures. However a world away from the white sand and pristine waters of Belize’s Cayes, the capital, Belize City, has found itself increasingly defined by violence and crime.

Created out of the dreams of the previous government, the new settlement of Mahogany Heights was supposed to represent new hope and a new life for Belize City dwellers. A bureaucratic mess up regarding land rights and a change of government later the now dilapidated village has an air of ghost towns past, but resident nurse, Rachel Vega, has set out to singlehandedly change this.

Mahogany Heights residents bought into the idea of peace, space for their children and the dream of owning their own land. However shortly after moving in they began to notice that their pre-fabricated houses were already falling into disrepair. Over time the road and the services also began failing, but by this time the government had long forgotten them. A land dispute meant that the new occupiers could not buy the deeds to their houses and then a new government failed continue with the re development project. The mass exodus which followed left a crime filled vacuum behind it; violence and drugs soared and Mahogany Heights became synonymous with all the same things the city dwellers had tried to escape from. Many of the houses are now derelict and occupied by squatters, and criminals find it a convenient resting place. Drugs are rife, gruesome murders and arson a part of its history and gangs the normality.

During the height of the bad times, one resident refused to retreat back to the city and instead decided she alone would tackle the issues left behind. Miss Rachel, a community health worker, rose to become the leader of this doomed community. Armed with nothing more than sheer determination she set about making some changes, beginning by persuading the government to station a police post here to decrease local crime. After persuading a local oil company to donate a tiny pre-fabricated building she then set up a health post, staffed once a month by a volunteer doctor and an immunisation nurse. When hungry children arrived at her door she fed them. When teenagers in need passed by she counselled them, and when sick people arrived she got them treated. “The kids just kept coming back,” she says. “I always keep Jam and peanut butter in my cupboard for them.”

Nowadays inside the 3 minuscule rooms Miss Rachel manages to squeeze a doctors surgery, immunisation clinic, sewing class, sex education lessons for teenagers, a homework club, a library, a summer camp and a feeding programme. During the sewing classes she educates the teenage girls about contraception and during the homework club she gives children access the books and computers they so desperately need.

Miss Rachel is now the beating heart of this underdeveloped community. “ I don’t call it a building or a surgery”, she explains, I call it “the little house with a huge heart”.

The families originally relocated here were by definition the ones with lots of children. Unemployment is high and opportunities are low. Many families cannot afford to clothe or feed their children, let alone educate them. When doctors recently informed her that many of the children were undernourished, Miss Rachel began a feeding programme.

Two years ago a UK school group built a shelter for her clinic patients to wait in, and also donated a tiny wooden kitchen, but without any government grants, she struggles to afford food to cook in it. Her goal is to provide all those who need it one meal a day. Not satisfied with that, she also allots time in her precious kitchen to those teenage girls who have been forced to drop out of school due to pregnancy, giving them space to prepare food and a place to eat together. “I wanted to reach out the children who were brought here”, she says.

A few months ago she gratefully received 3 donated computers which she wanted to give the children a chance to do their homework each evening. There they sit crammed in-between books, toys and medicines on a desk waiting for electricity to bestow them. Sharing electricity with the next-door police station seemed like a good option until Miss Rachel realised that no internet company would supply her. With precious little resources, she has only dreams and creative ideas to make sure the next generation change the story of this forgotten town.

She is the light of the community, comments Efrain Perez a local development project specialist, “working so hard to really make a difference for the kids, youth and adults of this area – she has a piece for everyone”. A sad product of politics, what could have been a symbol of hope destroyed is now a symbol of human tenacity and creativity. Whatever happens next in this story one thing is for sure, Miss Rachel will be right in the middle of it.